The love of dashing Lafayette’s life was a beautiful and brilliant noblewoman named Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles (I know, it’s a bit of a mouthful.) Born in Paris, she and Lafayette were married on April 11, 1774—when she was only 14 and Lafayette 16. Two years later, their first child, Henriette, was born.
On this day in 1777, Lafayette left France to go fight in the American Revolution, leaving a pregnant Adrienne behind. On June 7, 1777, he wrote her this very swoon-worthy letter from America:
Defender of that liberty that I idolize, coming myself freer than anyone else to offer the services of a friend to that interesting republic, I bear with me only my sincerity and my good will; no ambition, no personal interest. In laboring for my own glory, I labor for the prosperous issue of their efforts. I hope on my account you will become a good American. It is a sentiment suited to virtuous hearts. The welfare of America is bound closely to the welfare of all humanity. She is to become the honored and safe asylum of liberty! Adieu! Darkness does not suffer me to continue longer. But if my fingers were to follow my heart, I should need no daylight to tell you how I suffer far away from you, and how I love you.
While Lafayette was in America, Henriette died at only 22 months old—the first of many travails and tragedies Andrienne would have to endure alone. When Lafayette returned to France from 1779 to March 1780 to rally French support for the American cause, Adrienne became pregnant with her first son—whom the couple named Georges Washington de Lafayette.
After the American victory, Lafayette and Adrienne hosted a very popular salon on Monday evenings at their extravagant Parisian home, which became known as the de facto headquarteres of Americans in Paris. The salon included Benjamin Franklin, John and Abigail Adams, and John Jay—as well as liberal members of the French nobility.
Despite benefitting from being members of the nobility, both Lafayette and Adrienne objected to the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, and believed in a more democratic France. They also joined a French abolitionist group and petitioned George Washington to emancipate American slaves—sadly, to no avail.
Despite their Revolutionary ideals, both Lafayette and Adrienne were deemed too “moderate” and targeted by revolutionaries. While France was at war with Austria in 1792, Lafayette was accused of treason for being “loyal” to the crown—the strongest evidence being the fact he was still serving as a French soldier—and ended up in prison in Austria. (Interestingly, Angelica Schuyler and her husband conspired with several well-connected friends to help Lafayette escape, but were unsuccessful.)
Only a few months later, Adrienne was held under house arrest. While a prisoner, she wrote several brilliant and impassioned letters pleading for her freedom. Here are some of my favorite excerpts.
To Jacques Pierree Brissot (known as Warville, and was formerly a “friend” to the Lafayettes) two days after the arrest:
Monsieur: I believe you to be sincerely fanatic for liberty. It is a compliment I pay to very few people at this moment. I shall not examine whether that fanaticism, like religious fanaticism, does not generally defeat its own object, but I cannot persuade myself that one who has done so much for the emancipation of the negroes can be an agent of tyranny. I believe that if you are impassioned by the ends which your party seeks, at least you will abhor the means it employs. I am sure that you esteem, I might almost say that you respect, M. de Lafayette as a sincere and courageous friend of liberty, even when you persecute him because his opinions are different from your own as to the means of establishing freedom in France, and supported by courage like his and by faithful adherence to his oaths, are contrary to the party in which you have enlisted and to your new revolution. I believe all this, and therefore apply to you, although disdaining addressing all others; if I am mistaken tell me so, and I shall have troubled you for the last time…But if I am to be kept as a hostage, my captivity would be less hard to bear were I to choose Chavaniac as my prison on parole, and on the responsibility of the municipality of my village. If you wish to serve me, you will have the satisfaction of doing a good action by mitigating the fate of one who is unjustly persecuted and who, you well know, has neither the means nor the wish to injure. I consent to owe you that service.
Several months later, she wrote to Jean-Baptiste Lacoste, a representative of the National Convention:
I am informed, Monsieur, that there is a movement afoot to imprison all former nobles, in connection with the treacherous behaviour Dumouriez. I come now to tell you that though I declared my readiness at all times to stand surety for Monsieur de La Fayette, I most certainly have no intention of doing so for his enemies. Furthermore, whether I live or die is a matter of supreme indifference to Monsieur Dumouriez. You would do far better to leave me undisturbed in my retirement. When I was dragged from it, the only result was to awaken sympathy for me and to revive the memory of a great many injustices. I ask to be left with my children in the only situation I can find tolerable so long as my husband is a prisoner of the enemies of France.
By the time the Reign of Terror (the most bloody and horrific part of the French Revolution) rolled around, Adrienne had been imprisoned for almost two years. Her grandmother, mother, and sister were all guillotined on July 22, 1794. In January 1795, after over two years imprisonment, Adrienne was released, largeley due to the efforts of James Monroe and his wife Elizabeth, who visited Adrienne in jail.
Almost immediately, Adrienne got her 16-yeear-old son Georges out of France. She sent him to study at Harvard and live with his namesake George Washington, who was still serving as president of America at the time.
In October 1795, Adrienne managed to travel to Vienna and meet face-to-face with the Emperor who had been holding her husband prisoner for three and a half years. He refused to release him, but finally relented to let her join him.
So Adrienne VOLUNTARILY becomes a prisoner of Austria—along with her two youngest children, Anastasie and Virginie—after several years of being a prisoner in her own country. All of their money and belongings were confiscated, causing an international uproar, and inspiring a play entitled The Prisoners of Olmütz, or Conjugal Devotion.
Not one to twiddle her thumbs in prison, Adrienne wrote a book about her experience living in prison with her husband and daughters on the margins of a book with toothpicks and china ink! This book was published many years later.
The Lafayettes were finally released on September 18, 1797—over five years after Lafayette’s original imprisonment. Adrienne returned to France, but Lafayette was not allowed back until 1800. While essentially bankrupt, Adrienne was very involved in raising funds to build memorials to those slaughtered during the bloodier years of the Revolution.
Sadly, Adrienne was perpetually ill after her various incarcerations, and became gravely ill in December 1807. On Christmas Eve, she gathered her family around her bed, said her last words to Lafayette—“Je suis toute à vous" ("I am all yours")—and died.
A devastated Lafayette wrote of her death:
There was also a refinement in the way she expressed herself, a loftiness of thought which astonished everyone. But what was admirable above all, was the tenderness of heart which she was constantly showing to her six childreen, to her sister, to her aunt, to [friends and to me.]
Lafayette and Adrienne’s love story is one of those remarkable, epic historical romances. They fell in love as teenagers, and admired and cherished each other all their days. I think they must have beeen a perfect match. Adrienne might not be as famous as Lafayette now, but various friends of theirs wrote the following statements:
Her strength of character was as great as that of Lafayette himself, perhaps greater.
A heroine whose dignity and resolution were as conspicuous as her gentleness
A flawless partner.
And I agree.